Port Ellen whiskies are just going to keep getting rarer and more expensive. This old-fashioned whisky is beginning to show its age, but is still holding up nicely. It’s clean, with no excessive oak, and a soft, sweet maltiness for balance. Earthy and rooty at times, with tarry rope, beach pebbles, leafy smoke, bourbon barrel char, black licorice, lemon peel, and hints of shellfish and diesel fumes (like following a boat in the ocean). Long, smoky, lightly briny finish.
Port Ellen 37 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2017), 51%
Single Malt Scotch | $3,500
This 1979 vintage is the 17th Special Releases Port Ellen. It has been aged in refill American oak hogsheads and butts. The nose offers fresh-mown grass, ripe pears, and damp tweed, before smoked fish and bonfire aromas emerge. The oily palate features spicy peat, barbecued meat, and peaches in syrup. Very long in the finish; smoky and earthy, with a hint of chili and mouth-drying tannins. (2,988 bottles)
The sixteenth Special Releases Port Ellen is the oldest to date. Initially, sea breeze on the nose, brine, rock pools, and gentle iodine, followed by dried fruits, peat, and wood polish. Full-bodied, very silky, again with brine to the fore, plus sweet peat, drying slowly, ginger, black pepper, and balancing tropical fruit notes. The finish is long, with burnt oak embers and licorice. Diageo Special Releases 2016. (2,900 bottles)
Port Ellen 1978 35 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 56.5%
Single Malt Scotch | $3300
Scarcity and the secondary market have driven prices up, so either buddy-up to a rich guy, or club together to try this. Greater levels of cask interaction have added an extra dimension to a whisky that is often skeletal. The smoke’s in the background, as salted cashew, peppermint, tansy, furniture polish, and smoked meats take center stage. The palate is slowly expanding and smoked, with some chocolate and wax. Finally, a Port Ellen that is truly, classically mature. A killer. (2,964 bottles)
Now the one that peat freaks wait patiently for every year, which makes it the bottling that produces the most debate. For me, this is up there with last year’s bottling, which itself ushered in a return to high standards after a slight dropping-off in expressiveness.
This is different, however. Yes, the color is as pale as ever — has anyone ever tasted an over-oaked Port Ellen? — and yes, the nose initially shows all of the distillery’s austere notes: think of a wet fish counter and the sensation of the sea rather than overt ‘fishiness,’ while there’s also a chilled cucumber note. The difference is the sweetness, which is more to the fore, and also, it would seem, a slight dropping-off in massive smokiness. Here the peat is integrated into the whole.
The palate has a numb spot right on the front, then wasabi-like heat coupled with olive oil. Soon the sea rolls in and it stands there like some creature from the Black Lagoon covered with balls of tar, draped in wet seaweed, encrusted with barnacles and clams — and clutching a kipper. But don’t forget the sweetness that spreads across the tongue and slowly drifts into fresh spice and antiseptic. Complex…and there’s a scant 3,000 bottled for the globe. [not available in the U.S.] £280
Port Ellen 32 year old (11th release) Special Releases 2011, 53.9%
Single Malt Scotch | $488.00
Port Ellen’s make was usually filled into old casks to maximize its smoke when used young. To us, therefore, it’s Islay’s most austere malt, yet the guys who worked there all talk of its sweetness. Here, finally, is an example of that. Yes, there’s some wet slate and briny smoke, but it’s balanced by citrus, waxy fruits, and a central sweetness adding complexity. It might have taken a long time to get here, but it was worth the wait. (Editor's Choice)
The McGibbons Provenance (distilled at Port Ellen), 19 year old, 1982, 62.5%
Single Malt Scotch | $110.00
Amber color. Full aroma of peat smoke, with interwoven notes of seaweed, burning leaves, leather, and fudge. Medium in body, with a slight oily texture. Powerful and evolving in flavor, with great depth. It begins somewhat sweet up front with notes of vanilla and toffee, followed by a peat smoke explosion. Lingering notes of seaweed, oak, salt and pepper add complexity. Finally, the whisky becomes slightly sweet again, with lingering smoke.
Old Malt Cask (distilled at Port Ellen), 25 year old, 54.7%
Single Malt Scotch | $256.00
These Port Ellen whiskies are becoming increasingly rare since the distillery closed down for good in 1983. This is a very good example of an old-fashioned Islay whisky: never heavy, but with lots of kick. There’s plenty of wet leaf, bonfire smoke, coal tar, and some earthy, damp kiln notes and brine. But you’ll discover a lovely honeyed maltiness for balance, along with tangerine, dirty martini, and cocoa for complexity. Smoky, briny finish. There will be a time when some of us will tell the next generation of whisky drinkers about the joys of Port Ellen. Mare sure you’re one of those telling the story, not listening to it. (Exclusive to Kensington Wine Market.) $250 (Canadian)
The seventh limited edition release of Port Ellen whiskies by Diageo. Not as vibrant and intense as younger bottlings (particularly on the nose), but nicely matured with a satisfying sweet foundation. Notes of toffee and roasted nuts permeate though the peat kiln smoke, coal tar, fish nets, and charred oak. Seaweed and brine, more reserved mid-palate, emerges noticeably on the finish. The Port Ellen bottlings are getting older (the distillery closed in 1983) and they are getting more expensive. This one still captures the essence of Port Ellen.
Signatory (distilled at Port Ellen), 1982 vintage, 26 year old (Cask # 1202), 54.1%
Single Malt Scotch | $275.00
Port Ellen, for sure! Very old-fashioned in nature: intertwined notes of tarry rope, coal soot, rooty peat, toffee, dark chocolate, and walnuts, spiked with coffee bean, anise, cracked peppercorn, and a hint of ginger. Dry, smoky, long, slightly austere finish. This Port Ellen is a bit moody (maybe even has an attitude problem), but I’m not complaining.
The Whisky Exchange Elements of Islay Pe5 (distilled at Port Ellen), 57.9%
Single Malt Scotch | $279.00
This, the fifth of TWE’s ongoing Elements bottlings of Islay’s legendary closed distillery, does not disappoint. The nose is akin to salted chocolate, with a wasabi-like earthiness lurking behind. Port Ellen’s characteristic flintiness is there in the form of rock-pools and hot sand inside seashells, while the smoke hints at sphagnum moss, marsh gas, and burnt cake. The palate has touches of smoked eel and a hint of pear. As enigmatic as ever, in other words. £175 (500 ml)
Provenance (distilled at Port Ellen), 21 year old, 1982 vintage, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $195.00
One of the last remaining vintages from an Islay distillery which will be missed dearly. This is obviously from a sherry cask, and the peat smoke, sherry, and oak-aging is married nicely here. It a brooding Port Ellen. Notes of peat fires, fig, kippers, toffee, vanilla, and dry oak take turns entertaining the palate. Considering its age, it isn’t excessively oaked, and the Port Ellen character still shines through. If you’re going to track down a bottle of Port Ellen before they get really difficult to find, this one is worth serious consideration.
Port Ellen 1983 32 year old (Diageo Special Release 2015), 53.9%
Single Malt Scotch | $3700
Matured in refill European oak sherry butts, this year’s Special Release has more weight than many previous expressions and a fascinating smokiness that comes across like a just-lit fire: fire lighter, burning paper, fire grate, and wood smoke. The more active oak adds walnut skin notes and rich dried fruits before the smoke returns. All very sophisticated with enough sweetness to balance. Excellent, but, ouch, that price!
An elder Port Ellen, but still showing plenty of Port Ellen character. It’s chock full of kiln smoke, damp forest, seaweed, charcoal, brine, and tar. Additional notes of licorice root, kalamata olive, cinnamon, and black pepper, with teasing citrus emerging occasionally. Warming, tarry, dry smoke finish. An old-fashioned, pungent Islay whisky.
Here’s a classical Port Ellen, where the intense, even monomaniacal delivery of smoke mixes with damp face flannel, purple smoke, green ferns, and rapeseed oil. Lots of minerality, to the point of being almost flintily uncompromising. Water makes it more naked. The palate is excellent, with an explosion of preserved lemon-accented smokiness, touches of Spanish paprika, a sweet syrupy center, before a massive licorice finish. Peatiness for the purist, but whenever was that different? (2,958 bottles).
Chieftain’s (distilled at Port Ellen), 1982 vintage, 25 year old, 43%
Single Malt Scotch | $280.00
Port Ellen whiskies are getting pretty rare (and expensive). This one is softer and less vibrant than others that I’ve tasted, but still very much Port Ellen, and still enjoyable! Notes of coal tar, rooty licorice, toffee, dark chocolate, and nougat, with background citrus gumdrops, ginger, brine, seaweed, peat bog, and damp oak. I think bottling this at 46% without chill-filtering, or perhaps even cask-strength, would have helped the flavors “zing" (and elevated my rating).
A mix of two types of cask, both refill. Typical Port Ellen on the nose, very clean, precise, and austere, hiding its sweetness in a new pigskin wallet. Though there are hints of apple and almond, it has a chalky edge and surprisingly low levels of smoke. With water there’s squid ink and waxed paper. The palate starts with Darjeeling tea and roasted fruits, then heads to the kelp-strewn seashore. As challenging as ever, and actually a bit too dry. £600
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Port Ellen), 1982 vintage, 24 year old, 40%
Single Malt Scotch | $250.00
Port Ellen is going to just keep getting rarer and more expensive, and the quality is going to get more variable. This one shows the traditional Port Ellen characteristics (seaweed, tar, charcoal, damp earth, vanilla, salt, white pepper), but it just seems to flatten out mid-palate, leading to a fairly lifeless, slightly astringent finish. I feel like some of the guts were ripped out of this whisky. Bottling at a higher strength (and not chill-filtered) would have helped immensely.